With time running out on its option to buy the Freedom Center printing plant, Bally’s is expected to close the deal “this week,” sources said Monday, bringing the 30-acre site in River West another step closer to housing the Chicago casino.
The Rhode Island-based casino company has an option to buy the site from Dallas-based Nexstar Media Group, the nation’s largest TV station owner, which acquired it in 2019 as part of its $4.1 billion purchase of Tribune Media — the former broadcast parent of Tribune Publishing.
But the option to purchase the Freedom Center expires Oct. 25, according to sources, giving Bally’s two weeks to complete the deal. The price of the site has not been disclosed.
Representatives for Bally’s and Nexstar declined to comment Monday.
The Bally’s proposal to build a $1.74 billion casino complex in River West is expected to generate $200 million in annual tax revenue for the city, transform the industrial site into a bustling entertainment destination and send the Chicago Tribune packing from its Freedom Center printing plant along the Chicago River.
On Monday, the Milwaukee Business Journal reported that Tribune Publishing’s parent company, hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has completed its purchase of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s idled printing plant in West Milwaukee from Gannett for $26 million. At the same time, Chicago-based Tribune Publishing is continuing to negotiate with Nexstar to extend its printing plant lease at Freedom Center, which is set to expire in June 2023, for another 10 years.
Par Ridder, general manager of the Chicago Tribune, confirmed the Milwaukee printing plant purchase, but said no decision to relocate printing operations has been made.
“Twenty Lake Holdings, a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital, has purchased a number of legacy Gannett printing facilities around the country for investment purposes,” Ridder said in an email. “The key point is that we’ve exercised the option to renew the lease at Freedom Center. No decision has been made to move printing operations to Milwaukee.”
Bally’s filed its Chicago casino license application with the Illinois Gaming Board in August, with plans to open a temporary facility at Medinah Temple by June 2023. The permanent casino is not expected to open before 2026.
Signs that the ambitious casino project is moving forward have been increasingly visible, including one posted at the Freedom Center last month notifying the public that Bally’s submitted its application to the Plan Commission on Sept. 21 to amend an existing planned development for the site.
In 2018, Tribune Media got approval for a planned multiuse development at the site including offices, a hotel and thousands of residential units. The Bally’s proposal to redevelop it as a casino is not on the Plan Commission agenda for its next meeting on Oct. 20, according to the city’s website.
Bally’s is facing ongoing neighborhood opposition to the permanent casino plan, including from the River North Residents Association, which represents about 23,000 people living near the proposed site. The group is seeking significant adjustments to the plan to mitigate potential disruption for area residents.
The 41-year-old Freedom Center, which prints the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers, is slated for demolition as part of the casino development.
New York-based Alden, which completed its $633 million acquisition of Tribune Publishing in May 2021, becoming the second-largest newspaper owner in the U.S. behind Gannett, is preserving its printing options.
In addition to buying the 20-year-old Milwaukee Journal Sentinel plant, which was closed when Gannett consolidated regional printing operations at its Peoria Journal Star facility in May, Alden exercised its option to extend the Tribune Publishing lease at Freedom Center for another 10 years. Unable to reach an agreement with Nexstar, the terms of the extension are being decided by arbitration, according to sources.
If Bally’s buys the site, it will become Tribune Publishing’s landlord and will have the right to fund relocation of the printing operations to a comparable facility. But Bally’s Chairman Soo Kim told the Tribune previously he would not rule out keeping the plant on the current site, near the proposed casino development.
Having a casino next door may have some financial advantages over moving printing operations to Milwaukee.
“A move out of Freedom Center would require a prolonged planning effort and would be very, very expensive,” Ridder said.